Some 500 people gathered on and around the steps of the Federal Hall National Memorial in lower Manhattan March 23 to protest the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring that religious employers include free contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs even if it is contrary to their beliefs.
The rally in New York was one of 143 nationwide on that date as part of the “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” day organized by the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, which is based in Michigan. Priests for Life organized the New York event.
In Washington, D.C., protesters rallied in front of the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services. Organizers estimated the turnout nationwide at about 55,000.
A letter from Cardinal Dolan was read to the New York gathering. The Cardinal stressed that the Church’s position on the HHS mandate wasn’t, as has been depicted in some sectors of the media, a “war on women’s health.”
“It’s about the sacred right of every faith community to divine its own teaching and ministry and the right of every person of faith to be free from being forced to do something that violates their conscience,” the Cardinal wrote. “We will continue to seek redress from our government and our courts and we will tirelessly defend the timeless and enduring truth of religious freedom.”
Melissa Moschella, a fellow at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, pointed out that the mandate carved out “the narrowest religious exemption in our nation’s history.” The exemption is limited to a religious organization that holds nonprofit tax status, has as its primary focus the “inculcation of religious values,” employs mostly those who share its religious tenets and primarily serves people who also share that faith.
“Not even Jesus’ own ministry would qualify,” she pointed out. “It relegates religion to the private sphere, reducing it to participation in worship services, as an isolated activity with no bearing on one’s broader social and economic life.”
Helene Cooney, a parishioner at St. Joseph’s in Bronxville, was sitting on the famous steps where George Washington was sworn in as first president of the United States. She told CNY why it was important for her to be there.
“I believe in freedom, we do not have to have people in government telling us what our rights are,” she said.
A few counter-demonstrators were present on the fringes of the rally. One young woman held a sign aloft that read “if you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.”
That missed the point as far as Emily Matich was concerned. Ms. Matich, 23, is director of operations for the World Youth Alliance, a non-governmental organization that works with international bodies, including the United Nations, to build free and just societies through a culture of life. She attended the rally along with her colleague Meghan Grizzle, 26, a research and policy specialist at the alliance, to show their support for the rights of conscience guaranteed under the Constitution.
“That’s not what this protest is about,” she responded. “The protest is not about preventing women access to an abortion. Those things are already available at reasonable costs and the government is already subsidizing a lot of those services. We’re protesting individuals being forced to finance those things if they are opposed to it.”